Zico has spent the last few months among his dogs and eight grandchildren in his beautiful house in Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro. He is not used to being at home for so long. After spending the bulk of his playing career with Flamengo, he set off on a football adventure that has taken him across the globe and back. After playing in Italy and Japan, he managed in Japan, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Greece, Iraq, Qatar and India, before taking up his current role as technical director at Kashima Antlers in the J-League.
Being at home, then, is unusual for the 67-year-old. “This is the first time I have spent more than three months at home, enjoying my house. It’s been good,” he says. In Rio, Zico is bigger than Pelé. He scored 334 goals at the Maracanã and is worshiped as the greatest player to have pulled on the red and black of Flamengo – the most popular club in the country. Although Zico never won the World Cup, he also made history for the Seleção too, scoring Brazil’s winning goal as they became the first team from South America to win at Wembley in May 1981.
Two days before that game in London, Zico was practically unable to move because of a boil under his arm. “I didn’t attend the training session and I had to have a small operation. At the time, the doctor said there was no way to give me anaesthesia. He had to put the scalpel and cut it. I put the towel in my mouth, grabbed a teammate, and the doctor inserted the scalpel under my arm.”
The Brazil team doctor helped him on to the pitch and England keeper Ray Clemence inadvertently helped him score the winner. “There are goalkeepers who like to put a towel or bag inside the goal and that becomes a reference point. I was on the half turn and I swivelled and saw the bag in the corner. I hit the ball and it went straight into the bag inside the goal.”
Zico never played for an English club – he spent two seasons at Udinese during Serie A’s heyday – yet he says the Premier League is his favourite to watch now. “As a viewer, I wouldn’t swap the Premier League for any other. I’m always watching Premier League matches, because they are really playing a different kind of football than what we got used to seeing from the English in my time.”
“Back in my days it used to be more of a direct type of football, as they say in today’s language, which was someone kicking the ball into the air, crossing it into the area. Not today. This new thing of taking players with international pedigree, this raises the level of football a lot. England has improved the way of playing even in their own national team. English players with other characteristics have emerged.”
Zico believes that the development of English players now mirrors what he experienced in Italy in the 1980s. “This happened in Italy with foreigners. The arrival of these players has been beneficial for the quality of the national team, as it was in Italy. After that change, Italy won the World Cup in 1982, then won in 2006. Outstanding players emerged, with different characteristics from the typical Italian style, such as Pirlo, Del Piero and Baggio. They also went to the semi-finals in 1990.
“The Italians’ DNA changed a little bit. They stopped playing that sort of man-to-man defensive game, started to create more, and played football instead of being more concerned with defence. When you have top international players, the local young people grow up and end up creating other qualities and skills. This is what is currently happening with English football and with young Englishmen. The English youth teams won the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups. This is the proof of their current football style – a new one for sure.”
The leader of Brazil’s cult classic 1982 World Cup team says he enjoys watching Manchester City and Liverpool the most. Of course, he has fond memories of playing against Liverpool. In 1981, the midfielder inspired Flamengo to a 3-0 3-0 victory over the club in the Intercontinental Cup final, a game that pitted the champions of Europe and South America against one another.
For Zico, it was a victory of preparation. “They arrived with ignorance and us with knowledge. We had a guy here, who was a long-time opposition scout for the Brazilian national team, called Jairo dos Santos. He had a collection of everything, not videos, but European magazines and newspapers. He knew everything about the European teams. And he sent it to [then-Flamengo coach Paulo César] Carpegiani.
“We had information about their characteristics, the tactical changes they made, the way they positioned their defensive lines. We were able to take advantage of certain situations – for instance the line they used to hold in their defensive half. We scored two goals that way, making the pass fast, being careful not to get caught offside. I assisted Nunes two times in that exact manner.”
The famous match against Liverpool took place in Japan, a land where Zico would become an idol. Perhaps Gary Lineker remembers him too after their battle in the opening match of the J-League season in 1993. Zico, who was 40 at the time, scored a hat-trick as Kashima Antlers beat Nagoya Grampus Eight 5-0. “That was remarkable, because it was the opening day, that high expectation. Lineker and I, one on each side, of course. It had huge repercussions in the Japanese press and in the international media.”
Zico has played, managed and served as a director for Kashima Antlers. He also coached the Japan team at the 2006 World Cup. This may explain why Zico is one of the few Brazilians who has received a statue outside of Brazil. In fact, he has three of them in his honour across Japan. Yet now, in the middle of a pandemic, he cannot return to his job in Japan. “If I went there I’d be quarantined, so Kashima Antlers prefer me to be quarantined at my home. They say that when they solve all the problems they will send me a plane ticket.”
There have been more than 50,000 deaths from coronavirus in Brazil, with nearly 10,000 of them in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Zico protects himself at home, where he watches on with concern as football returns to Brazil. His beloved Flamengo have pushed for the resumption and recently won the first post-quarantine game at the Maracanã. The stadium sits right next to a temporary hospital where, on the day of the match, two people died of Covid-19.
“I talk to doctors I know at clubs. Some have the infrastructure to do the tests. Others don’t. So, for the return, there must be a level playing field for everyone involved. There cannot be one club that tests players and one that doesn’t. Here in Rio some clubs have not started training, others have been training for two weeks because they are able to follow the protocol without taking any risk.”
Despite the tragic reasons that have forced him into isolation, being at home in Rio with his family has been an unexpected gift. But he has become used to travelling the world for football and does not hide his wish to keep going after this imposed break. “I want to be there in Japan. If I were released tomorrow, I would get on a flight and go.”